In Gufeng village, a poor mining town in the mountains of northern China, a mute miner Zhang Baomin (Song Yang, ‘Final Master’) returns to his small family sheep farm after learning from his wife, Cui Xia (Tan Zhuo, ‘Cock and Bull’), that his young son Zhang Lei hasn’t come back from shepherding for two days.
En route, Zhang Baomin remembers how he was the only villager to hold out against signing a land-requisition compensation deal with Hongchang Mining, resulting in a fight and the stabbing of butcher Ding Hai in the eye with a sucked-out shank bone (leftovers from a communal dinner). In the current day, Hongchang tycoon Chang Wannian (Jiang Wu, ‘Shock Wave’) has been making further acquisitions, forcing Jinquan Mining owner Li Shuiquan (An Hu) to sell over his company (once again, over dinner and brutally). Also, lawyer Xu Wenjie, a weak, unhappy man, is under investigation by the authorities for his work with Chang.
As Zhang Baomin begins to search for his son, it stirs up anxiety, resentment and distrust among the townsfolk, who turn a metaphoric blind eye to the reality of a missing child. But Zhang does not stop his search, even when he comes head-to-head with the corruption and danger that permeates the local mining business, eventually visiting Jinquan’s mine, where Chang’s enforcers, led by Da Jin (Wang Zichen, ‘The Golden Era’), arrive to sack the workers. A mix of clues and instincts begin to torment Zhang, as he is increasingly convinced that Chang is behind his son’s disappearance...
Set, shot and inspired by real-life stories from the dusty landscape around director Xin Yukun’s hometown of Baotou, Inner Mongolia province, ‘Wrath of Silence’ is notable for its striking visuals (courtesy of cinematographer He Shan) and in the implacable trajectories of its characters. He Shan’s widescreen photography evokes the hard-scrabble, desolate territory in a picturesque way without overbearing the human drama of Xin’s noir-infused screenplay. However, there are several shots - including a breathtaking crane-up to reveal a large, urbanised city, rising into view as if from out of the ground - where the visuals mostly speak for themselves (helped by Sylvian Wand’s dreamy electronic score).
Adopting an icy tone with frequent lashings of dark humour, the script delves into the complex relationship between the lower, middle and upper-class peoples of northern China. Miner Zhang embodies rural China, powerful but voiceless, in contrast with a middle-class embodied in helpless lawyer Xu, whose words only serve the rich and overwhelming entrepreneur Chang. This is reinforced by the production design: Zhang in his village hut, Chang in his incredibly lavish office, and Xu in a modest apartment. Food is an ongoing theme, with the peasant farmers and miners bonding over simple, communal meals, and the Hong Kong elite gorging on (and occasionally torturing each other with) opulent dishes, sliced meats and bottled water.
Like the film’s mute protagonist, ‘Wrath of Silence’ never spells out its central mystery. Instead, it gradually gives the audience all the clues they need to come to their own conclusion.
The film is assisted by strong performances by Song Yang as Zhang, who plays his mute role with expressive eyes and wiry physicality, and Jiang Wu in the flashier role as Chang, who manages to convey the sense that beneath his façade of expensive suits and shoes lies a mobster adept at using both muscle and money to exert his control over the region.
If you’re a fan of South Korean crime/revenge maestros Park Chan-wook (‘Sympathy for Mr Vengeance’, ‘Old Boy’) and Na Hong-jin (‘The Chaser’), you will find a lot to like about ‘Wrath of Silence’, like a hero with inhuman stamina, a labyrinthine plot, children in peril, hallway duels with countless iron bar-wielding goons, lots of blunt force trauma and a knock-down, drag-out final fight. Li Hongbiao’s action choreography isn’t intricately stylised – instead it’s shot in a messy, frenetic way to convey that every scuffle is a brawl.
‘Wrath of Silence’ unfolds in a single-act rather than conventional three-act structure, with one event spiralling into another, the next twist in the story always unexpected (including multiple feints just prior to the finale), with the whole plot literally imploding in the last shot. This only occurs on a visual level because, like the film’s mute protagonist, ‘Wrath of Silence’ never spells out its central mystery. Instead, it gradually gives the audience all the clues they need to come to their own conclusion. Some crimes will get punished in the end (as mandated by China’s film censors) but the director manages to slip through a devastating, clearly fatalistic critique of social injustice.
If you’re looking for a clever noir mystery with plenty of brawling, with a script that tears into China’s social fabric, keep your eyes and ears peeled for ‘Wrath of Silence’.